The Great Burden of 1958

sheaThe view from my season tickets at Shea Stadium – Loge Reserve Section, 11 Row E, Seats 5 and 6. I took this photo right before the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, which Derek Jeter popped over the left field fence for a home run. The Yankees took the series in 5 games.

My hometown The Bronx New York has a reputation that doesn’t need to be explained to anyone.

When I lived in London at age 18, my Aussie and Kiwi roommates were amazed that I didn’t carry a gun to protect myself. Poet Ogden Nash famously wrote “The Bronx? No Thonx”. The teachers that taught me there were often so damn ignorant they told us the borough’s namesake Jonas Bronck was Dutch (he was actually a Swede).

No, I didn’t like growing up there at all. On top of everything, I was freakishly tall as a kid, and as my height outpaced my musculature I was an easy target. There were kids in my 6th grade class who had been left back 3 times and had siblings in prison, and they didn’t fuck around.

Worst of all, I had to root for The Mets.

The most successful and storied professional baseball franchise in United States history, the New York Yankees, makes it’s home in The Bronx. Even people who’ve never watched a baseball game in their entire lives have heard of the “Bronx Bombers”. The Babe. Lou Gehrig. Pride of the Yankees. “My hometown team”. When I tell other Baseball Fans I’m from The Bronx and despite this root for The Mets, they want to put a bullet in my head.

Please let me explain how this all happened.

My father spent his teenage and young adult years living in a residential hotel in Midtown Manhattan with my grandfather. They spent many weekend afternoons at the Polo Grounds, enjoying the superb play of the New York Giants baseball team who were a perennial contender in those days. The Polo Grounds was demolished many years ago.

Directly across the very narrow Harlem River from the Polo Grounds site, sits Yankee Stadium, home to the mortal, sworn enemy of every baseball fan in the universe (multiplier effect applies to all fans of the Boston Red Sox, and NY Mets in that order).

The year was 1958, and the owners of both the Giants and Dodgers diarrhea’d all over their loyal fan base and brought the franchises to California. New York City was without a National League team until 1962 when the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club came into existence. The “Mets” began their generally hapless existence by losing many, many games in splendid fashion at the Polo Grounds, shitting all over the greatness of Willie Mays and others (ironically Mays would join The Mets as their star player during the swan song of his playing career).

There was just no way any Giants fan could possibly become a Yankees fan. That would be like me joining the nazi party while simultaneously swearing allegiance to oliver cromwell. For this reason, my dad (like all good Giants fans) became a Mets fan. I inherited this condition.

Nobody who follows baseball in New York City, in a sincere and genuine fashion, ever roots for both teams. It just isn’t done. When I meet someone from New York who roots for both Mets and Yankees, it reminds me of the girls I dated in college who were dating me and had romantic relationships going with other girls at the same time. Way too scattered to focus on anything.

As luck would have it, my sworn enemy the Yankees had one of their Golden Eras in the early 1970’s when I was a child growing up in The Bronx. All of my friends witnessed the greatness of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Thurmon Munson and so many others. Billy Martin kicked sand on umpires. Crucial playoff games were won on impossible walkoff home runs. Fans rained down thousands of chocolate bars upon the Red Sox outfielders on “Reggie Bar” day. Full size bats were given to every fan as a promotion, and somehow nobody killed anyone. It was a magical time to be a Yankees fan.

Us Mets fans? Not so much. 1973 did give us a National League Pennant under the leadership of the great Yogi Berra as manager, but after that we had Dave Kingman, George Foster, and an overall Zen and mentality that I can best describe as “Quantum Losership”.

That’s not to say we didn’t have an absolutely wonderful time at Shea Stadium watching The Mets lose. You could spend $3 for a General Admission ticket that would grant you access to any seat you wanted in the expansive Upper Deck. People smoked cheeba and performed sexual acts on each other in the upper rows and nobody gave a shit. Wacky promotions by the team included a live Mule and mule cart which transported visiting relief pitchers from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound. It was never, ever, ever boring. Best of all, it was quality time bonding with my dad. No distractions other than the inept play on the field, and the occasional death threats issued to each other by random drunken fans.

In my High School years, I used Shea as a refuge, sometimes taking the 40 minute QBx1 bus ride from Co-op City to Flushing, then jumping on the 7 train for the 1 stop ride to the stadium to watch the game by myself.

Shea Stadium was one of those projects that tried to be too many things to too many people, built in an architectural era defined by concrete. It was designed for both baseball and football games, as well as concerts and other types of events, and as a result wasn’t particularly well-suited for anything at all. Everyone remembers The Beatles famous performance there (which my Dad attended and, like everyone else who was there, he will tell you that nobody could hear a damn thing aside from the sound of 50,000 hysterical teenage girls).

In 1986, when I was a sophomore at SUNY Purchase, The Mets won the World Series. The final game was wrapping up during an orchestra rehearsal, and my roommate Roger Lee pumped his fist in the air every time The Mets scored a run (he had his Walkman on tuned to the game, and the conductor was for some reason willing to tolerate his occasional hysterical outbursts from the Trumpet section). By the time rehearsal was over and I’d returned to the dorms, The Mets had won it and the place was going bezerk. A sweet little hippy chick I knew named Serena was running back and forth down the halls screaming like a lunatic. I don’t think she’d ever even seen a baseball game in her entire life.

After that, I stopped caring about baseball for many years. Then, in the late ’90’s my friend Paul Morrill invited me to partner on a pair of Mets season tickets with himself, our pal Dan Petrafessa, and a friend of theirs named Alex who they knew from the Jam Band scene (Paul and Dan worked as lighting designers for the band Blues Traveler –  my bandmates and I were friends with those guys as well as the guys from Spin Doctors. A story for another time.). I figured “what the heck” and went in with them. We went to lots of games and had a blast. Yukked it up with the lunatic fans, ate hot dogs and drank beer with the great bassist Bobby Sheehan (RIP) and many other friends, and delighted as my borderline-psychotic section-mates razzed Matt Dillon when he sat next to us during the 2000 World Series. You never saw a celebrity take such abuse. “HEY MATT!!!! WHASSAMATTA, YOU COULDN’T GET NO BETTER SEATS THAN THIS?!?!?!”

The 1999 and 2000 post-seasons were a dream. We chanted so loud at Larry “Chipper” Jones and John “Racist Bastard” Rocker of the Atlanta Braves that it completely messed with their heads and The Mets nearly took the pennant in ’99 after a 16 inning game in the rain that ranks as one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life.

But then, in 2000, The Yankees kicked our asses in the World Series and it was all over. I gave up my seats the following year.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2005, I remained loyal to The Mets. Yes, I adopted the Giants as my new #1 team. I have this as a birthright due to the shit I went through as a kid that resulted from my father’s loyalty to the NY Baseball Giants. I wore my Mets stuff whenever the Mets came to town, and relief pitcher Billy Wagner even tossed me a ball during batting practice, a ball which I still keep on my desk to this day as a stress relief toy.

Today I’m pure Giants. When The Mets come to town I root against them. I hope the scumbag owners who now own The Mets get forced to sell.

If some crazy event happens in my life that makes me a billionaire, I will buy The Mets and help make them the best team in baseball. I will then put The Yankees out of business for good.

The new stadium that replaced Shea, the Citibank Field or whatever it’s called, I have zero interest in whatsoever. I’ve driven past it many times enroute from JFK to The City and back, and it looks like nothing more than a corporate billboard.

Shea was a shithouse, yes. But make no mistake. It was MY shithouse.

The last pitch I witnessed with my own eyes at Shea Stadium, the year before they knocked it down, was the last pitch of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Carlos Beltran had just looked at strike three down-the-middle with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and the Saint Louis Cardinals had a good old celebration on our field before flying back to Missouri with the Pennant.  Dan Petrofessa had hooked me up with seats to the game, as always, and he & I sat together in the very last row of the farthest reaches of the deep right field upper deck, where I watched so, so many games with my dad as a kid. They don’t let you smoke joints in those seats anymore.

In the far reaches of the upper-deck at Shea, the trajectory of the ball appears Kafkaesque. This is the domain of the most rabid variety of Met fan, those who will stop at nothing to be at the game. They would sit in the lighting rafters above, risking their lives, any day of the year, if stadium management would let them. So would I.

. . . This is the Story of Johnny Rotten.

In late 1994, Bob Ludwig had just mastered “Altitude” for us, and despite the man’s genius at his craft, we were very unhappy with the results. In the recording and mixing process of the album, we had taken great care to maintain the dynamics that were an important part of the songs themselves as well as the band’s sound overall. Ludwig’s take on it was to wipe that all out in order to make the record sound great on FM radio. That was not his idea, by the way, it was in fact the directive from Howard Thompson, our A&R man. Those were his instructions to Nick Sansano (Producer) and Brad Leigh (Engineer) and was never mentioned to us until after the fact.

You see, The Rake’s Progress operated as a 5-person consensus and we were very neurotic people at the time. The grown-ups (Howard, Nick, Brad, and our manager Patti DeVries) had enough of our group dysfunction by the time we were done with the 3 months of production, tracking, and mixing to the cost of a quarter million dollars of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ money.

We were told by Nick that he and Brad would be driving up to Portland Maine together to work with Bob in his studio there, and they would take our aesthetic wishes along with them. They never told us about Howard’s directive so we were pretty shocked and upset at what we heard when we put the DAT on at Matty Kaufman’s apartment and heard all of our precious dynamics gone.

We were so upset, that Bob Ludwig wrote us a very thoughtful letter on his thinking behind the decision to level everything with compressors. He said that since this was supposed to be an “FM Radio Hit Record” he used his very fancy and expensive high-end compressors to do the leveling, rather than have the crappy compressors the FM stations use to the job. This is an entire topic unto itself, but to explain it briefly, FM radio stations compress their signals to level out the dynamic range (i.e. loud/soft). They do this so their signal doesn’t over-modulate and bleed into other frequencies (which is illegal), and also so that the music has more “presence” (i.e. maintains a level and relatively loud “in your face” sound to hold your attention). Some stations compress heavier than others, and the worst culprits of all are the stations that play the “hits”. We were poised at the time to have a “hit record” and that’s why the label was paying all this money to get this dang thing out there. Bob’s rationale was that the record would sound better on the radio, and he was right about that, but it made the CD listening experience pretty dang lousy.

Since we were on the road so much at the time, four of us in the band maintained a small apartment-slash-crashpad on East 10th Street in Manhattan, which we shared with a few of our siblings. One evening, Tim and I were hanging by ourselves around drinking beers and mulling the fate of our beloved new album, when the phone rang. It was Howard.

“Hey Bob, any of the guys around?”

“Yeah, Tim is here.”

“Cool. Why don’t you and Tim come over to the 10th Street Lounge. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Hanging with Howard always meant fun, and the fun was always on the label’s dime (which technically meant our dime actually), so Tim and I headed down to the bar which was just a block away.

The 10th Street Lounge was a bar which we frequented often since Mary Denny (the woman in the Cheese Food Prostitute album sleeve) was the manager, and we never paid for a single thing, ever. The whole staff treated us like rock stars even though we were only marginally successful. Actual celebrities drank there and they treated us just the same way as they did Kate Moss and Mike Piazza.

It was a Tuesday night and the place was practically empty. At the main bar towards the front sat a few couples making all lovey-dovey, and in the small bar at the rear sat Howard with a guy wearing a winter parka, the hood pulled over his head so you couldn’t see who it was. They were having a chat and a laugh with the hot female bartender. In addition to being a haven of free drinks for us, the bar was staffed with beautiful girls who were very happy to spend quality time with guys in marginally successful rock bands such as Tim and myself.

We approached Howard and his Mystery Friend. Howard turned and smiled at us.

“Bob, Tim, I’d like you to meet my friend John.”

The man pulled down his hood slightly and extended his hand. It was John Lydon AKA, Johnny Rotten, whose post-Sex Pistols band PIL Howard had signed back in the ’80’s.

I froze up completely.

“Aaaaah, so THIS is the band.” he said with a curious look in is eye. Tim and I shook his and and sat down.

“They’ll have what I’m having, luv.”

The bartender fetched a bottle of Stoli and scooped some ice into a cocktail shaker. She poured a healthy measure of the vodka in to the shaker and mixed it with a spoon. Strained into our glasses, was basically pure vodka watered down with a bit of ice.

“Cheers, boys! Howard is a dick!”

Tim and I laughed hysterically, as did Howard. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world Howard would have sat there and took that from.

We tossed back our shots, and my initial nervousness melted away as I realized this guy was going to be fun.

“Pardon me boys, need to visit the loo.”

John stood up and walked back to the restrooms. Howard leaned in to me and TIm.

“Listen, guys, don’t bullshit with him. He hates that. Just act normal, be your normal selves, and we’ll all have a blast.”

Mr. Rotten returned a moment later and rejoined the group.

“John, these wankers have written a song about me called ‘Howard Is A Drag'”.

John’s face lit up – he was delighted. “Oh, that’s WONDERFUL! I’ll be in the music video, and we can do it on a speedboat in the middle of the ocean. We’ll make Howard wear a leather thong, and I’ll pierce his scrotum. Then I’ll attach the chain of the anchor to his scrotum and  throw the anchor into the ocean, so as the boat speeds along Howard is dragged overboard and submerged completely.”

We all cracked up hysterically, including Howard once again. I could not believe what I was hearing. I still envision that video concept fondly in my mind sometimes, and can not help but wonder if what happened next that evening may have killed the possibility of it ever happening (believe me, I was of the mindset at the time – delusional or not – that we could somehow actually pull something like that off).

After 4 shots of the straight vodka, I was feeling pretty drunk. John expected us to keep up with him drink-for-drink and I was not about to let him down. To be honest, I was AFRAID of letting him man down because of what he might do or say to me, and I didn’t want him to kick me out. I was having  way too much fun.

As the bartender teed up the next round of shots, I realized if I drank it I might actually throw up right there. So, as the other guys raised their heads to tilt back their glasses, I chucked my shot from the glass under the bar towards my feet. I slammed the glass down, pretending that I’d drained it, and the boys were none the wiser.

I repeated this “dumping the shot” for the next 3 or 4 rounds and all was good.

And then he caught me.

“You WANKER! HOW MANY SHOTS DID YOU NOT DRINK??”

“Uuuh, one or two”

“FOUR SHOTS FOR HIM! NOW!”

As she teed up the shots, I realized it was either drink or go home. I was never in a Frat before, but I imagine this would be the closest thing. Hazed by Johnny Rotten.

I used every ounce of self control I could to get the liquid past my throat and into my stomach. I felt the first contractions of vomiting but held my ground. Good. Bullet dodged.

“Alright, Howard, it’s time to get the band LAID!”

I am not now nor have I ever been into prostitutes – it’s something that I really can’t relate to. Especially back then when I was single. The chase was more exciting than the catch, and besides I don’t think I could ever have sex with anyone I hadn’t at least gotten to know a little. That and all the cooties of course.

Tim didn’t do the hookers either, so we politely passed and John and Howard went off to do whatever it is they got into the rest of the night. We never saw Johnny Rotten again.

Cracked

I just spent 3 very long days attending the 2015 Adobe Tech Summit at the Moscone convention center in San Francisco. This was a rare opportunity for me, as I now am involved in something I like to describe as “Dark Ops” from outside the organization (if you want an explanation of what I mean by that, hit me up in the comments and we can discuss). Myself and my colleagues Joey Princz and James Begera were the only “outsiders” in this invited crowd of 3,000 brilliant and accomplished technologists, all current Adobe employees.

Due to the nature of the trust placed in me by my former employer and current client, I cannot reveal much of what went on there, but one thing I can do is share the following story that involves non-confidential, publicly available information.

I also need to state that this is provided for informational purposes only and I don’t’ recommend you try any of this at home as to do so would be highly illegal and could definitely land you in prison.

On the first night of the conference, there was a Tech Fair where many teams from within Adobe showcased various inventions and technologies they are working on. I saw a lot of mind-blowing shit there and I really wish I could tell you all about it.  You will find out about some of it eventually.

Part of the fair involved a “Hacker Village” where members of the Adobe Security team led hands-on labs in which you could learn how to perform common hacks so you could also learn how to prevent them from happening to you or your team. We read about how hacks can happen all the time, but for me, learning to do it hands-on, and then hacking my own Android Phone and Clipper card (SF Bay Area transit money card) with readily available, inexpensive components and software still has me shaken.

There were other labs which involved even scarier things like hacking passwords and entire websites. They were really crowded and I wanted to let the real professionals who really need to know this stuff have the floor so I didn’t do any of those. Security is a hot topic at Adobe, as there was a major breach there last year. What’s even more frightening, in a way, is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, just the things we know about. We should all consider that all information on the internet is fair game for anyone. That has become very apparent to me.

HACKING THE CLIPPER CARD

The Clipper card uses RFID technology, which is used by many other types of electronic key ID cards, garage door openers, Passports, etc. Basically, the card has a unique ID code that the RFID chip transmits.

Here is how I hacked my own Clipper card and basically stole it from myself:

  1. Using a very simple physical device, involving components purchased from Radio Shack, connected to a laptop via WiFi, I scanned the area for RFID signals. This device can detect any RFID within 2 feet. It detected the Clipper card in my wallet and displayed it’s unique alphanumeric ID.
  2. Using a blank card of the same variety, I used another simple and readily available device attached to the laptop to create a new card with the same ID.
  3. I now had an exact copy of my Clipper card. I could use it on any SF Bay Area transit and the money would be deducted from my account, just as if it were my own card. Since this card is linked to my credit card, just imagine the damage that could be done here.

What can be done to prevent this shit from happening to you? Keep those ID cards in a wallet that is designed to block the RFID frequencies. You can find them online and at the geek supply store nearest you.

HACKING THE MOBILE PHONE (or any other device that uses WiFi to connect to the Internet):

This lab also involved a laptop, a $30 scanner purchased from Best Buy, and an application readily available from many online hacker communities.

Here is how I hacked my own phone in order to steal everything I am doing on the Internet via that phone, including my logins, passwords, account information, and all the rest. The whole shebang:

  1. With the scanner attached to the computer, and the software app running, I pressed a button to scan for WiFi connection requests in the area. This might not be the proper technical terminology for this, but the general gist is the following:
    1. When you connect to any WiFi network, your phone remembers it. Let’s say for the sake of this example, I had connected about a month ago to a WiFi network with the SSID “SFO FREE WIFI” when waiting for a flight at San Francisco International Airport.
    2. Whenever my phone is on, and my WiFi is on, and I’m NOT currently connected to a WiFi network, the phone is looking for “SFO FREE WIFI” along with any other networks I had previously connected to. The phone remembers EVERYTHING including any previously used logins/passwords associated with those previous connections of mine. (This goes for any WiFi enabled mobile phone or tablet, by the way. iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, whatever.)
  2. I could instantly see that my phone was searching for “SFO FREE WIFI” amongst other various previously used WiFi SSIDs.
  3. I then used another readily-available app to create a new WiFi network called “SFO FREE WIFI”.
  4. My phone connected to this bogus “SFO FREE WIFI” network instantly, assuming it was the one I had previously been connected to at San Francisco International Airport a month ago.
  5. Via this app, all my information was now passing through a “trap application” (also not a true technical term) in which everything was being captured.

How can you prevent against this? Keep your WiFi turned off on your phone whenever you are not in your home or office or any other place where you are connecting to a trusted network. It also saves your battery.

In fact, don’t connect to ANY WiFi network until you’re completely convinced that it’s a reliable and trustworthy source.

When you do connect to a trusted public network such as an airport or hotel, uncheck the “remember this network” box if it exists on your device.

That is all the scaremongering I have in me for today. Carry on.

Edie Le Dee Dee

Edie died over the weekend. She’d found out that she had it bad with lung cancer last summer, and kept us up to date on Facebook on all the goings on with her state of mind and body. As was her nature, Edie maintained a positive, grateful, and joking attitude to her very last post Feb 9, 2015, on the day she was admitted to the hospital and subsequently diagnosed with pneumonia. The next thing you know, her husband Eugene told us she was gone.

I haven’t seen Edie since 1991, when she performed with me in a number I put together for a show at the Comic Strip in NYC. I was doing my own hacked-up and decidedly subversive version of “PDQ Bach”-like classical music parody in live shows and on the radio at the time, and the program director at classical station WQXR invited me to perform on a “Classical Music Comedy” bill that ironically included Peter Schickele himself, the man behind “PDQ Bach”. The show was MC’d by Bob McGrath from Sesame Street and Elliot Forest, the WQXR morning DJ. A morning  DJ on a classical station. Nice guy, but dry, dry, dry, dry, dry.

Bob from Sesame Street was a sweetheart, by the way, just like he is on the show.

The number I decided to perform is one of the stranger things I’ve ever recorded, and one of the only things I’ve ever recorded “lead vocals” on. A goof on a “renaissance” minstrel tune, probably the closest thing I can compare it to is Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Edie was one of the background singers at the live WQXR performance of that number, as was the late, great Michael Klausner (a SUNY Purchase classmate who was funny and talented beyond measure and died way, way too young). I had decided that the punch line for the live act would be me getting clocked in the head from behind with a “stunt” breakaway wine bottle prop by Michael,  then falling to the ground unconscious and getting dragged off the stage. Michael had humiliated himself in a similar fashion for me when he played the lead role in my composition “Drunk Tenor Cantata” a couple years prior, so I wanted to return the favor.

The song, which I had been told by many people was the funniest bit on the radio show, did not work so well as a live act. There were eight or so of us dressed in renaissance garb on the cramped stand-up comedy stage with our instruments. An audience of mainly older classical music fans who had no idea who the fuck I was just sat there and stared. On the last beat of the song when Michael hit me on the head with the bottle from behind, the prop that I’d bought from a specialty prop house for fifty bucks and then lovingly shielded from harm’s way for weeks somehow ricocheted off my head and landed 10 feet away in the lap of a horrified lady in the 2nd row.. I was dragged through the room of silent, confused, and borderline hostile onlookers by Michael and Edie through the packed comedy club to the lobby. My shirt had become an ashtray.

I hid until after the show, when I went up to Peter Schickele because I just had to meet the man. He indulged me in a chat, but I know the entire time he was thinking “wow, you really sucked the wind out of the place tonight, didn’t ya, rookie?”

Edie thought the whole thing was great. She thought it was SPECTACULAR. “Bob, we did it! We performed at the Comic Strip!” The fact that it was a bomb did not cross her mind in the least.

We will miss you, Edie.

Tapin’ In!

I navigated the Honda Civic into one of those New York City parking spaces where you’re not sure if it’s even a parking space at all, but this was still pre-Giuliani New York City when the police didn’t give a rat’s ass. Since I was still inept with the stick, I stalled 8 or 9 times trying to back into the spot while passers-by looked on disapprovingly. I was a Native New Yorker and yet somehow managed for the first time in my life to be marked as a tourist. Go figure.

It was 6pm and just getting dark, but the sidewalks were already empty. “Where IS everybody?” I thought. I had worked as a foot-messenger in this area as a part-time job back in high school and knew the neighborhood pretty well. Even at 6, it should be packed with people. I turned the corner onto West 28th Street and walked right into a scene from “Taxi Driver” – cars were backed-up the entire length of the block while 8 or 9 hookers in full regalia conga-lined it from car-to-car, hustling for “dates”.

“Oh, THERE they are!” I thought with a sense of relief. The “scene” would move a few blocks this way or that over time, or whenever the heat was on, but the common thread with this was that it would always take place on a block with a hotel, so that once the handshake was made there was a convenient place to go and get the dirty work over with. Apparently, the “scene” had just made it’s way over to the block I was to audition for Gregg & Tim on. Well, at least if the audition sucked I could go back downstairs and drown my sorrows in the sweet arms of Chlamydia.

Hooker-copThis image pretty much sums up the police attitude towards “vice” in 1980’s New York CIty. Photo credit: booyorkcity.com

I made my way down the block, found the building, and rang the buzzer. The door buzzed open, and I walked down a narrow, dimly-lit hallway into a very small elevator that was barely enough to fit me and my bass case. I pressed the button for the 6th floor, the door slammed shut with a heavy “thud”, and the elevator jerked upwards with a start, then stopped for a brief moment, then slowly began ascending with a horrible mechanical grinding sound that made me think someone was trying to crush a refrigerator in a trash compactor. This was not alarming in to me in the least, by the way, as most every band rehearsal space in The City was in a similar state – housed in a building that had dodged condemnation for years because the landlords knew who to bribe in the building department and how much to give in order for the guy to look the other way. It was much cheaper to do it that way than actually keep the buildings in functioning order.

I often imagined a modern-day re-enactment of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire taking place in one of these buildings – with dozens of panicked rock band musicians trampling each other in a mad-dash to the exits, draging their still-attached amplifiers behind them.

I stepped off the elevator and onto the 6th floor, then knocked on the studio door. Several bolt-locks were unlatched from the inside, and the door swung open.

“YEAH?????”

There stood a tall, curly-haired, glasses-wearing, pot-bellied-tie-died man who looked just a few years older than I. He was holding a bowl of cat food in his hands. The guy just stood there and looked at me with such an intense expression of disdain and resentment that I would’ve thought I had knocked on the wrong door if I wasn’t so used to it by now.

You see, pretty much everyone I had to deal with in those days in the lower levels of the NYC “rock music ecosystem” was a total dick.  Guitar store salespeople? Dicks. Studio owners? Dicks. Club bookers? Dicks, Dicks, Dicks. All of ’em. I think it was the first item listed on the job requirements to get a sales job at Sam Ash. “OK, now. Let’s take a look at your resume. Hmmmm, I see here it says that you’re a complete and total dick. How does $150k a year sound?”

we buy guitarsAbove: One of the fine establishments on West 48th street in the 1980’s where you could walk in off the street with a pocket full of cash and still get treated like a piece of shit by the staff.

The cat-food-holding man just stood there, staring me down like I was a door-to-door Jehova’s Witness who had just interrupted his family dinner.

“Uh . . . I’m supposed to be meeting some guys named Gregg and Tim here for an audition?”

His cat paced back and forth nervously behind him, awaiting her dinner.

“Mrrrrrroooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww!”

“LUCY………..SHUT!!! THE!!! FUCK!!! UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“MRRRRROOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!”

He turned away abruptly, set down the bowl of cat food, and walked through another door to what I imagined was his “office”, slamming it shut without saying another word.

I entered the “reception area” and could see a door ajar down a dark hall to my left. I headed down the hall, pushed open the door, and standing right there before me was Hank Letterman. Holy shit, it was really him.

“Hey, Bob. Great to meet you!”

Gregg looked exactly the same as he did on TV, and I couldn’t help but burst out in laughter. “I’m sorry, man. I just love your stuff on TV so much that the mere sight of you cracks me up.” I realized that might be taken the wrong way, but he didn’t seem to mind. I think he was used to it.

One of the other two guys, looking like a somewhat slightly younger, thinner version of Morrissey without the coiffed hair-do, came over and introduced himself. “Hey, I’m Tim, thanks for coming down all the way from Westchester. This is Tim Curry, our drummer.”

From the riser, Tim Curry extended his hand with a big smile. He struck me as a bit older than the rest of us, and had a vibe about him that told me “this guy isn’t from New York.”

I put down my bass case, took off my jacket, and began the most awkward part of the audition – the chatty bit that happens while you simultaneously try to unpack your instrument, tune up, and attempt (in vain) to get a halfway-decent sound from the crappy amp provided by the studio.

“Yeah, so the drive down here was crazy. There was an accident on the Hutch.”

“Cool. What kind of bass is that?”

“Oh, it’s an Ibanez Musician, I got it back in high-school.”

The first thing rock band musicians do upon meeting other rock band musicians is is to sniff out each other’s gear. It’s the same exact thing that happens when dogs sniff out each others’ butts. Gregg had a black-and-white Rickenbacker 360 running through a Roland JC-120 guitar amp. This was the standard-issue setup for “alternative rock band guitarists” at the time (as an example, see the same exact guitar/amp setup in the Smiths video on my post from a few days ago). You could basically walk into any guitar store in America and say “give me an REM” and they would hand you a Rick 360 with a JC-120.

Our “awkward pre-audition setup chit-chat” was suddenly interrupted by the loud and unmistakable sound of some heavy-duty duct tape being ripped from it’s roll. I looked over to Tim Curry, and saw him perched atop the drum throne, his right foot held high in the air. In his right hand was his kick-drum pedal, while a really long piece of duct tape dangled from his lips.

In a single motion, he pressed the pedal to his foot, took the tape from his mouth, and started wrapping it around his foot and the pedal together, around and around several times so that his foot was completely, firmly, solidly affixed.

“Tapin’ in, boys! Tapin’ in!”

As he continued to apply additional long strips of tape, wrapping them around the now-joined-together-foot-pedal, getting tighter and tighter with each turn, I stood there completely baffled. I had played with dozens upon dozens of drummers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability in my life, and had yet to see anything even remotely close to this. If you’ve ever played the drums before, you know that even though it can look like nothing but a whole lot of heavy-handed booming and bashing, it actually requires a great deal of tactile control and feel on all four limbs, including the legs and by extension the feet.

If you’ve never played a drum kit before, imagine duct-taping your foot to the gas pedal in your car in the manner described above. Can you even imagine trying to drive your car that way?  “Maybe this guy is on to something here,” I thought. “Maybe I should be taping my right thumb to the ‘E’ string, so my hand doesn’t slip off. Don’t need the ‘E’ string much anyway.”

The first song we were to play was one of Tim and Gregg’s original numbers called “Fact of the Matter”.

“You want me to show you the chords?”

“Nah, I play by ear. Just start the song and I’ll pick it up.”

Tim Curry counted us off, and the song began. A mid-tempo intro with a jangly guitar arpeggio, rimshots on the snare drum keeping time.

“D major, walkdown to B minor, walkdown from G to E,” I thought to myself as I joined in. Simple chord changes, piece of cake.

Then Tim began singing. “Stuck in the middle of . . . relationship and lust . . . have I been unjust . . . don’t know who to trust.”

“Man, this guy needs to put away the rhyme dictionary,” I thought to myself as the song built towards the first chorus. The melody was nice. The jangly guitar bits were nice. Tim’s voice was nice. This was sounding pretty good!

Then we hit the chorus and the drums kicked in.

For those of you that have never played bass in a rock band before, the musical relationship you have with the drummer is very intense and intimate – just like the relationship you have with your sex partner. It’s exactly like fucking in the sense that if you can’t get a good rhythm going together, if you keep struggling to get into a groove to no avail,  then you’re in for a very frustrating and unsatisfying time.

We finished the song, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it could sound like with a drummer who didn’t have his foot taped to his kick-drum pedal.

NEXT–> Laying down some “Ground Rules”

Some Drugs Are Stronger Than Heroin

Going down to “The City” to audition for bands I’d met through the Village Voice had become a ritual for me at this point. I was living close to my college in Westchester County New York, and had just purchased my first new car which was the absolute cheapest car on the market aside from the Yugo (even as a college student prone to bad decision making I had the sense to run for my life from that thing). I hadn’t even gotten the hang of driving a stick shift and yet I was making the 45 minute run back and forth once or twice a week to Manhattan for band auditions. This resulted in my brand new car being downgraded to “prop from Sanford and Son” in a single semester.

I think it’s really important to mention that at this point I no longer wanted the life I had built for myself as a “legitimate professional musician”. The gigs were mostly boring and unsatisfying, and I was already making a living at it even though I had just turned 20.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had in fact become addicted to the drug I first tasted when I did those “Kids From The Real Fame School” shows back in high school. I was still chasing that high, to no avail. Playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, in orchestra pits for musicals, and recording sessions for middling singer-songwriters wasn’t doing it. There are only so many times in your life that you can play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang before you either take the gaspipe or get yourself into some serious heroin.

leonardbornsteinHere’s a Fun Rake’s Progress fact for ya . . . in the late 1980’s both Stu and myself played in the band of “Leonard Bornstein, the Bar Mitzvah King of Northern New Jersey” (pictured above).

Let me break it down for you – most “professional musicians” are miserable. I learned this first-hand in my 2nd year of high school when I performed with the New York Philharmonic as part of the All City High School Orchestra program. We did a couple of concerts together every year, with both orchestras onstage at Avery Fischer Hall, alternating seats (meaning I was seated in the bass section in between two members of the Philharmonic bass section). The track I was on with my music at the time was focused on becoming a professional orchestral musician, so getting to have this experience was, to me, like telling my son who loves baseball “hey Theo, guess what….Your little league team is going to play a game together with the Giants against the Dodgers. Pagan, Posey, Pence, and Crawford are batting 2, 4, 6, and  8 in the lineup, and you, Nate, Oscar, Gabe, and Josh are batting in the 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 spots. You’re batting leadoff, Son, go get ’em!” It was kind of nuts to be given this opportunity at such a young age.

The morning of the first concert, we assembled in what I was told was the Philharmonic’s dressing room, backstage at Avery Fischer. They were big, nondescript rooms, one for the women and one for the men, containing various sized lockers, showers, big mirrors, and the rest of what you’d expect in a locker room, nothing fancy. There was to be a morning rehearsal, then an afternoon concert, and there wasn’t much to do at this point but wait around until we were called up to the stage.

After a few more boring minutes, some grown-ups began showing up. They were a pretty rough looking group, unkempt, unshaven, stinky, and not looking happy at all to be there. I turned to my buddy Victor Lawrence and said “holy shit, check it out Vic. This isn’t the Philharmonic’s dressing room – this is the dressing room for the janitorial staff!”

“Yeah, what’s going on with that?”

Our conversation was interrupted by the disembodied voice of the stage manager coming through a loudspeaker. “All-City High School Orchestra Members To The Stage, Please!”

We grabbed our instruments and were led up the stairs and onto the great stage where Leonard Bernstein once held sway. I made my way to my seat in the bass section, and anxiously began warming up by playing the opening measures of “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila” which was the first piece we were to rehearse with “The Phil” that day. It kicks off with these insanely impossible virtuostic scales that we’d been practicing for months. I was wound up so tightly that it actually felt like I was about to shit my pants right there on stage.

A few moments later, one of the janitors from the locker room came up beside me, a half-smoked unlit cigar dangling from his lower lip. He was holding an incredible looking, rare, Italianate upright bass, and was also moaning somewhat. He plopped his fat butt down in the seat beside me, at which point I realized the man was John Schaeffer, Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Looking like WC Fields. Smelling like he’d rolled right out the door of the Jameson’s distillery tour in Dublin Ireland.

ny_phil_schaefferAbove: The great John Schaeffer, sans unlit cigar, with his wide head of grey hair and bloated cheeks, as seen in the back of the bass section behind conductor Zubin Mehta

The man didn’t say a single word to me then, nor did he say a single word to me the entire time despite the fact that we were 2 feet away from each other. I don’t think he was a nasty guy. I just think he was miserable.

A few moments later I had a new compadre on the stand to the right of me, one John Deak. He was also somewhat unkempt and grizzled at that hour of the day, but introduced himself in a kind manner and asked how long I’d been studying. I asked him how many years he’d been in the orchestra and his eyes glazed over. “Ohhhhh, I dunnooo… thirty-two, thirty-three yeeeearssss???”

I figured the man was high on drugs, some kind of high-grade grownup drugs that nobody at my high school knew about (and believe me when I tell you I went to high school with some people who were VERY advanced in that area). He was a really nice guy but it was clear to me that he was SO over it. Thirty some-odd years of sitting in the same orchestra, playing the same exact “standard repertoire that the ticket buyers want to hear” year-after-year. These guys were MISERABLE! And this was supposed to be one of the GREATEST ORCHESTRAS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!!! At that moment, I realized that if this was what success looked like as a professional orchestral musician, I wanted no part of it.

I’d get to know John Deak some years later, as I performed his composition “The Ugly Duckling” for my senior recital at Purchase. It turned out he wasn’t on drugs at all, he’s just a really spacy guy sometimes.

There is lots more to this story, and once again I find myself digressing on non-Rakes Progress related things to the extent that I need to steer myself back to the story at hand. There will be time to go back and tell the rest of that one later. The whole purpose of me telling you the story above, is to illustrate that by the time I went down to “The City” to audition for Tim & Gregg I was completely done with wanting to be a “legitimate professional”. I wanted to be in a BAND. A band that wrote and performed the music that I wanted to hear and play, and made records and traveled the world sharing that music with everyone.

In high school, I was the guy spending hours sitting in his room by himself for hours with his bass guitar, listening to records by Rush and Yes, trying to learn the bass lines note-by-note. That, in lieu of hanging with friends or chasing girls or anything else normal teenagers do. I was the guy fantasizing that I was Geddy Lee or Chris Squire or John Entwhistle. This whole “professional musician” thing was DEFINITELY NOT FOR ME.

Interesting to note that the most insulting thing you can say to a serious music student at a serious music school is “you’re being unprofessional”.

So, I made it down to the rehearsal studio on West 28th Street where I’d be meeting and playing with Tim, Gregg, and their drummer Tim Curry for the first time. There were 2 main buildings full of band rehearsal studios in Manhattan at the time – one called “The Music Building” and the other one called “The Music Building”. This one was in neither, which was somewhat of a shock as the phone conversation for setting up an audition always ended with “which Music Building, the one on 30th or the one on 8th Avenue?” This time it was in a completely different location, in a building I’d never been to before.

Damn, I did it again. I ran out of time today to get to the story I wanted to tell. That will have to come tomorrow. To tease you old-school Rake’s Progress fans, it will include the story of our first time playing the following songs:

The Fact of the Matter

Charm

Arcade Colors

NEXT–> Tapin’ In!

I Prefer To Be Called Henry!

The way I bonded with my father throughout my teens was through television. We were both avid TV watchers, and one of our favorite shows by far was Late Night with David Letterman. In the 1980’s, Letterman was still subversive.

I was a big enough of a fan that I would regularly attend live tapings of the show at the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center — sometimes 2 or three times a month. It was only 3 short blocks from my high school, and they taped at 5:30pm, so I could just walk over there after 8th period, ask people standing in the audience line if they had any extra tickets, and go in and enjoy the show. It was always a riot, and I got to watch some classic performances in person by comic heroes of the day such as Andy Kaufman and Pee-Wee Herman.

One of the funniest shows they did all year were the Christmas specials, where they would bring in “Dave’s family” for a wholesome evening of songs and Pat-Boone style revelry (Pat Boone was actually on the show too). The family included teenage son Hank Letterman, who basically stole the show every time he opened his mouth. Have a look:

Hank was one of the funniest characters I’d ever seen on one of the funniest shows I’d ever seen.

Which brings me back to the “ad in the Village Voice”. After some back-and-forth leaving of and listening to answering machine messages, I found myself on the phone with a friendly guy named Gregg Lapkin. He told me that he and his friend Tim, whom he’d known since High School, had recently dropped out of the Parson’s School of Design to focus full time on starting a band. They’d been writing songs together, with him writing the music and Tim writing the lyrics.

Through a prior ad, they had already found a drummer and a bass player, but the bass player didn’t work out. He had quit after one rehearsal. The guy called himself “Zebra” –  he wore spandex and told Tim & Gregg that their “situation waszn’t rockin’ it enuff” for him.

Finding bandmates through the Voice was always a delicate situation.

The conversation flowed right off the bat with me and Gregg. Cold-calling people off these ads, you never knew what to expect — I’d done it many times before and the person on the other end of that phone line often turned out to be some type of cluster-fucked mix of delusion and psycopathy. That, or they were just assholes.  It was nice to have a normal conversation with a nice person for a change.

Gregg and I spent some time getting to know each other a bit beyond just discussing music, and at one point he mentioned that he was also involved in some acting.

“You know the David Letterman show? I play this character Hank Letterman on the Christmas specials.”

I froze up. No way.

“That’s YOU?”

“Yeah, I also do commercials and have a manager that sends me on auditions for other stuff sometimes . . . ”

The guy was so completely nonchalant about it, but to me it felt like I was speaking with Robin Williams or something. The rest of our conversation notwithstanding, there was no way at this point that I was NOT going to go down there and audition for these guys.

NEXT–> Some Drugs Are Stronger Than Heroin